Salim and Yvette

Karl Miller

  • A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul
    Deutsch, 296 pp, £5.50

The discussion of V.S. Naipaul’s new novel needs to refer to two in particular of his previous fictions. The novella In a Free State depicts – more accurately, glimpses or surmises – a coup in an emergent African country: in this respect, it is like the new novel. But the novel which immediately precedes the new one, Guerrillas, stands closer to it still. In Guerrillas, which is set in the Caribbean, the description of an emergent country’s state of emergency is combined with the description of a sexual relationship between two people of different races: the rebellion glimpsed there is mysterious, cryptic, the sexual relationship is fully lit.

V.S. Naipaul by Mark Boxer
V.S. Naipaul by Mark Boxer

Guerrillas tells how an outcast, hustler and self-proclaimed revolutionary, Jimmy Ahmed, has returned from London to his native island, and has formed a commune for drop-out youths. He takes up with a wandering Englishwoman, Jane, who has come looking for action in the Third World and has found this corner of it to be benighted and becalmed. The commune runs rapidly to seed, and trouble breaks out on the island. Whoever it is that is causing the trouble – and we are never told – Jimmy is excluded from the chances it may afford to those seeking power and advantage. He is, in this sense, impotent. He has already insulted Jane sexually: now he and one of his youths kill her. Guerrillas strikes me as a powerful and accomplished work, but some readers were upset by the hostility shown towards the murdered woman, and, perhaps, by the sympathy shown towards Jimmy – the sympathy of an author noted for his sceptical attitude towards revolutionaries, who had been hostile, in print, to all of the participants in the historical events which supplied part of his plot. There may also have been readers who were led to reflect on Othello’s self-righteous murder of Desdemona, and to reflect that Shakespeare’s play expresses a view of mixed marriages which is both encouraging and discouraging.

The new novel resumes and modifies certain of these themes. Both novels see the world in colonial colours – as determined by empires, in the furtherance of which races have defeated and enslaved each other, in which they have met and married, in which a black mercenary might marry a daughter of Venice. For much of its course, the new novel takes all this for granted. It is what is likely to occur. Races insult each other, and make war, and make love, and they may mix these activities up. At the same time, the novel finds more to resist in these activities than many readers might anticipate. It is the work of a writer for whom, in successive fictions, the theme of sexual dealings between people of different races has necessitated the representation of violence. Rapes and murders occur, of course, in this area, and may have to be treated. And the theme is obviously of high consequence for the portrayal of any society where race is a trouble. The society may be symbolised by such dealings, and experienced through them. Hardship and discontent may declare themselves there, in a victim’s revenge. In addressing itself to such possibilities, however, A Bend in the River, for all its air of simplicity, is never simple. Its narrator and chief human presence is by no means straightforwardly a victim, and the difference between oppressor and oppressed can be hard to identify.

The novel is narrated by a Moslem of Indian origin, whose family have been settled on the east coast of Africa, as traders. Salim takes off on the first of a series of ‘flights’, and treks to the interior, to a country which appears to be compounded of the Congo and of Uganda, in order to earn a living from a store which he has acquired from a man whose daughter he is expected to marry one day. Reading Salim’s palm, the man points out that he is ‘faithful’. Salim can be designated a Kenya Asian: the name we give to those hard-working aliens who have been driven out of African countries in recent times, and who include the shopkeepers and merchants expropriated in Uganda by Amin. Kenya Asians are now working hard in the darkness and grime of British cities, where Patel is among the commonest names in the telephone directory.

Salim is bound by certain of the rules and assumptions of kinship. His kin are entrepreneurs, a wandering bourgeoisie: they have known what it is to be strangers in tight corners, as he himself is a stranger in this tight African town. At the same time, he has wandered some distance from his kin, in spirit. So he is both doubly an outcast and no outcast at all. Unlike many of the towns through which he has bribed his way in his Peugeot from the coast, this one isn’t ‘full of blood’. But it is between coups, or unrests, and has lately been smashed and looted. It is the sort of place which will always revive and rebuild, and in such a place Salim’s part is to make good, carry on. The country, formerly a colony, now ‘independent’, is controlled by a black ‘big man’ in the capital down-river. An atavistic, tribal, magical resistance spreads about the bush: starveling rebels are hunted by an army, but magic bends the army’s guns. There is none of the mystification which can be attributed to the account of the troubles in Guerrillas: what we get is the mysterious politics of forest and township as observed by an outsider, by an African Asian who understands a good deal of what is going on. Salim buries his valuables – from another point of view, his ill-gotten gains – and an ominous silence descends on the town:

Sometimes I thought I could hear the noise of the rapids. It was the eternal noise at that bend in the river, but on a normal day it couldn’t be heard here. Now it seemed to come and go on the wind. At midday, when we shut the shop for lunch, and I drove through the streets, it was only the river, glittering in the hard light, that seemed alive. No dugouts, though; only the water hyacinths travelling up from the south, and floating away to the west, clump after clump, with the thick-stalked lilac flowers like masts.

Outside the town, a polytechnic and seminar centre has been planted by Presidential fiat. It is headed by the big man’s white man, the Belgian scholar Raymond, who has lost favour with his patron and is sinking into ceremonies of high-placed sagacity. Salim has an affair with the white man’s white woman, his stylish wife Yvette: radical chic persuades him that he ‘never wanted to be ordinary again’. Hitherto a shameful brothel man, Salim is uplifted by their meetings in his flat: ‘My wish for an adventure with Yvette was a wish to be taken up to the skies.’

Blood flows within the town; Raymond’s work on a collection of the President’s speeches, which could restore him to favour, languishes. Presently the affair ends in insult: Salim beats Yvette and spits on her, and flies to London, where he gets to know his intended bride. When he returns to the town, he is arrested, but is set free by Ferdinand, an African promoted from the bush whose patron he has once been. Salim makes good his escape on the steamer – bound, we may feel, for his bride. The family slave boy, Metty (the name means half-caste), who had come to live with him, is firmly left behind. Salim is now homeless in the sense that he has shed an old tendency to nostalgia: ‘that idea of going home, of leaving, the idea of the other place’, he recognises as weakening and destructive. This feeling is added to a previous illumination, to a stoicism which believes in ‘the unity of experience and the illusion of pain’.

Salim tells Salim’s story. It is not Naipaul’s; it does not constitute the author’s testament or confession on the subject of race relations and the rest of it. The novel rather harshly signals a separation between author and narrator with its very first sentence: ‘The World is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.’ An early passage separates this man, who does not want to be nothing, from the trading elders of his family – pessimists who could take risks, and were consoled by their religion:

I could never rise so high. My own pessimism, my insecurity, was a more terrestrial affair. I was without the religious sense of my family. The insecurity I felt was due to my lack of true religion, and was like the small change of the exalted pessimism of our faith, the pessimism that can drive men on to do wonders. It was the price for my more materialist attitude, my seeking to occupy the middle ground, between absorption in life and soaring above the cares of the earth.

Elsewhere Salim separates himself from the doers and makers of the big world beyond him, of whom it is said: ‘They’re making cars that will run on water.’ Such people are ‘impartial, up in the clouds, like good gods’. The men in the bush are watched by gods who are barely a jump above their heads: these white gods are more remote. Salim reads about their doings in his magazines of popular science, and in letting Ferdinand into the secret of his interests, he feels he is revealing his ‘true self’. But if his ‘true nature’ is to be romantically on the rise, and to have ‘ideas’, it is also his nature to occupy the middle ground. It isn’t lost on him that his reading matter – popular science, pornography – is ‘junk’. For much of the time, he is the achiever who tries for a reasonable percentage return.

Salim presents himself in a light which requires the reader to be told that, although he himself has been making good, he is grieved, or affects to be, by the discovery that the slavish Metty has been getting on: ‘You’ve been very much getting on as though you’re your own man.’ Their relationship has tenderness in it, and treachery. Metty betrays his master and is then left in the lurch, predicting a future which the novel does not lead us to discount: ‘They’re going to kill and kill.’ Metty is a misfit, as Golding’s Matty is, in another new novel. English fiction loves such people; it never tires of the lurch.

Salim’s outlook incorporates a version of that of his friend Indar, who teaches in the polytechnic for a while, and lends himself to the philanthropic white-liberal cultivation of the African experience, where some of the best comedy in the book is located. At one point Indar recounts his struggles and illuminations. ‘Raised’ from the ruck, originally, by his family’s wealth, he doesn’t want to ‘sink’, and rejects ‘the idea of defeat’ that prevails in the Third World:

I’m tired of being on the losing side. I don’t want to pass. I know exactly who I am and where I stand in the world. But now I want to win and win and win.

Salim, too, wants to win, and his affair with Yvette is a victory: ‘All my energy and mind were devoted to that new end of winning the person.’ In possessing her, he is both taken out of, and placed in possession of, himself: ‘She gave me the idea of my manliness I had grown to need.’ When the friendship begins to fail, he says: ‘What she drew out of me remained extraordinary to me.’ The affair seems to him to belong to the town, to have no future, and they are parted by the fact that the town has come under fear and hazard. He finds himself ‘considering the idea of flight’, and the idea of defeat: ‘I suppose that, thinking of my own harassment and Raymond’s defeat, I had begun to consider Yvette a defeated person as well, trapped in the town, as sick of herself and the wasting asset of her body as I was sick of myself and my anxieties.’ But the fit of jealousy in which he beats her means something else, or it means that and something more. What it means is not specified, but this jealousy may be felt to be like Othello’s in having more to do with difference of race, and with the jealousies of race, than the jealous man, or than the work he belongs to, seems disposed to state.

*

Three of literature’s myths underlie the narrative. They are myths of the foreign woman, which bring together achievement and betrayal, achievement and desertion. Of the stories I have in mind, Othello and Desdemona, Samson and Delilah, Dido and Aeneas, only the third is spoken of, and it is spoken of oracularly. The town has a motto which consists of

the Latin words carved on the ruined monument near the dock gates: Miscerique probat populos et foedera jungi. ‘He approves of the mingling of the peoples and their bonds of union’: that was what the words meant, and again they were very old words, from the days of ancient Rome. They came from a poem about the founding of Rome. The very first Roman hero, travelling to Italy to found his city, lands on the coast of Africa. The local queen falls in love with him, and it seems that the journey to Italy might be called off. But then the watching gods take a hand; and one of them says that the great Roman god might not approve of a settlement in Africa, of a mingling of peoples there, of treaties of union between Africans and Romans. That was how the words occurred in the old Latin poem. In the motto, though, three words were altered to reverse the meaning. According to the motto, the words carved in granite outside our dock gates, a settlement in Africa raises no doubts: the great Roman god approves of the mingling of peoples and the making of treaties in Africa.

There is irony here. We are made to feel that the reversed meaning is wrong. This is a book which takes for granted, and which has doubts about, the mingling of peoples, and it is a book which takes pride in its chosen people – Salim’s and, in some measure, Naipaul’s. Virgil’s Aeneas leaves a burning Troy to go on his adventures, effect his betrayal, and arrive at the Tiber, where an empire is to rise. Salim is an Aeneas who makes it to London, where those of his blood are founding a way of life, and he has his Dido both in Yvette and in Metty. Perhaps this much can be said without suggesting that the book is an epic for Kenya Asians, which tells of a people threatened by nobodies, nothings, and managing to survive. Nor is it a one-sided account of the injustices suffered by this people, or a defence of the energetic stranger.

The myths are not all equally available to the novel, and they are not enough to explain it. This lucid and candid prose, strong in the detail of a particular time and place, often ignores, and can on occasion seem to depart from, the sense of the literature it embodies. The offended looks of the muzzy black citoyen who is put in to own Salim’s store when trade is politicised are funny, and important, and owe nothing to the Aeneid. But those who would prefer to explain the book as a comedy of manners, or as current affairs, might have difficulty in explaining the prominence given to the love affair. The plot states that an attachment to a strange woman, a woman who does not belong to this community of strangers, is succeeded by a return to the community, and by the dispersal, and survival, of the community. Salim states that he was having a rough time, and was tired and suspicious of Yvette: he does not say that a tribal god commanded him to leave her. It may be that neither statement need be held to subtract from the other, but there could well be some dispute as to which of the two is the more deeply entrenched in the novel.

Conrad – the Conrad who writes about the mingling of peoples, and about empire and adventure – has been of assistance to Naipaul in his descriptions of Africa, and of other places exotically far from the British readership with whom he earned his initial reputation, and the closing scene in this novel may allude to the journey up-river to Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’. The story of that name contains gangsters, scrambling exploiters, mercenaries, businessmen, an ideologue, and it ends in horror and mystery, and in an interview with an Intended: Conrad’s Africa is not at odds with Naipaul’s.

When the steamer quits the town, it is attacked by rebels, but manages to fight clear. Meanwhile, in this closing scene, the water hyacinths proceed towards the sea, as they have been doing throughout the action. They keep coming, like immigrants, or refugees, like the boat people whom this novel could be thought to predict. Salim’s flight to London can be compared to the movement of these flowers, and to the Romeward journey in Virgil. His fortunes are those of someone who will remain homeless even if he is able to make a home for himself in a further foreign country. As such, they are those of his kind. And they are those of a hero, as well as a drifting hyacinth. He is a hero, with a hero’s faults: an achiever and an adventurer who is also a victim and an outcast, a shameful man and a faithful family man. Subtly mythic and ethnocentric, the novel is one of Naipaul’s most rewarding. It speaks of the separation of races, and of a world which mixes them up. But if it sometimes seems to be saying, on Salim’s behalf, that race or kinship wins, it is also the case that it is full of losers, that it has a lively feeling for the Africans of market and bush, and for their African troubles, and for the situation of Salim as someone evolved or emerged from a tribal narrowness to an experience of sexual love which is liberating and dramatic, and that it does justice to Metty’s last state, left behind in the dangerous town at the bend in the river.